A-Side, B-Side

Dylan Brown

He had kept the bulk of his music library, which covered every genre from obscure Sub-Saharan drum tracks recorded on cell-phones to honey-tongued R&B to Norwegian black metal, in his parents’ basement. It was the only place, he had argued, that could support the weight of it all. The house’s foundation had been rebuilt so they agreed to let their only child store the thousands of records. Once it arrived, Vivian saw the library as a chance to keep Kurt in orbit. However, several months after the decision, Kurt died in a hotel room in Berlin after a long night of DJing—a death that was still under investigation.

Just outside Sante Fe, Neil and Vivian sat in their sunroom, almost entirely obscured by their cacti and ficus, wondering what to do with all the records. Part of Neil wanted to blame his son’s death on the rows of vinyl sitting, sleeved neatly in plastic, just below him. He knew this made little sense, and that of course the records did not kill his son. Still, German authorities (a phrase he hated the sound of, but found himself using with friends and family on a regular basis now) had not yet determined whether his death was an accident or something more nefarious. The uncertainty gnawed at Neil—he did not know what exactly had happened and so he did not know exactly how to respond. Vivian reached over from her lounger and patted the back of Neil’s hand. She had a different plan, one she had already started, which was to listen to each record in its entirety at least once, using as a guide the meticulous spreadsheets Kurt kept on a clipboard hanging at the end of one shelf. Her son had devised a scheme in which he organized the records by genre in horizontal rows and by decade in columns, starting with music from the fifties at the far left corner and moving all the way to contemporary work at the far right. Sometimes Vivian stood under the light bulb with its little ball bearing chain, tugged it so she was alone in the dark, and pretended her son was there with her too, perusing the shelves by memory, by touch.

A little tower of records was forming in their split-level living room by the record player Kurt had bought them. They had rarely used it until now. The stack of records looked vaguely like a tombstone, a likeness Vivian knew better not to share with Neil. They kept the turntable displayed on a wooden shelf by the short stairs leading up to the dining area. Neil looked at it as though it were some poor alchemist’s failed experiment. He had trouble believing the resurgence in vinyl was real. It made him queasy, the way the past seemed to crawl up out of its grave, in particular, the way he had somehow, in a sense, spun back thirty years to the world in which he did not yet have a son.

Vivian and Neil ate out more often after their son died. It kept the dishes from piling up, was how Neil thought of it. Vivian, however, thought it strange to feed her own body when her son could no longer feed his. She would make a smoothie in the morning with bananas and strawberries and in the evening pick at the Vietnamese takeout. Some of Kurt’s music, which they often listened to in the evenings, Neil found grating and awful. Much of it was too repetitive, the beat looping in on itself. It was the sort of thing that could drive a man insane. Vivian inferred most of this by the way Neil chewed loudly, as if his smacking lips could drown out the blips, snares, and scratches produced by the more obscure electronic artists.

The hailstorm was unexpected, even though it came in winter. The incident would have been unremarkable, had Neil not slipped in the steep driveway, fracturing his left wrist. Vivian drove him to the hospital and sat with him as he filled out the questionnaire regarding his health. How often he drank: ten per week, any recent life changes that might contribute to stress: none. Vivian watched as he re-propped the clipboard awkwardly in the crook of his elbow. Was there anything else the doctor should know? Neil had left it blank and stared at the magazines spread on the table. He didn’t flinch when Vivian pulled the forms to her lap. His Xs looked like little sketchy crosses.

Are you sure about these? she asked, tapping the clipboard.

No, he said, and she handed it back.

My son is dead, he wrote quickly, almost illegibly. He died in Germany 10 weeks ago.

That night, they listened to something ambient, the sort of thing you might hear at a planetarium. The doctor had written a prescription for strong painkillers and Neil smiled and nodded his head along to the music, even though it had no beat and seemed to consist of the same note being played over and over until it blurred into one long sustain.

When it ended, he asked Vivian if they might play that side one more time.

Are you sure? she asked. There are other albums to listen to.

We’ll get to those, Neil said, closing his eyes. Just let me hear that one again, one more time before we turn in.